Well, it’s been a long time coming, and it’s going to be a scramble to get it on the statute books in the lifetime of this Assembly. But hey, this isn’t the time for begrudgery - we can all welcome the announcement that older, and some though sadly not all, younger, people here will be protected against discrimination when they are buying goods and using services. I was at Stormont last month to hear the two Junior Ministers for equality tell us, with a degree of frankness about the difficulties the parties have had in reaching agreement, that the process of developing this legislation was about to start.
For me, there has been a niggling sense of unfairness in realising that older people in GB and the rest of Ireland have already got this legal protection – restricted, qualified, largely untested protection maybe, but there.
And I was involved from 2008 with AGE Platform Europe, an EU-wide network of age-related organisations, in trying to push for a European Directive on the issue. This would of course be binding on the governments of member states. That too has been blocked and stalled by what AGE grimly sums up as “strong resistance from a few countries and a general lack of political will”. At one stage, OFMDFM proposed waiting for the Directive before bringing in our own legislation – I remember a couple of years ago begging them not to hold their breath!
I have no illusions about the difficulties in drafting meaningful, workable legislation, especially under the severe time pressures we are facing.
There will be strong lobbies working to weaken it, to have a long list of exceptions. Unbelievably, the GB legislation excludes much of the financial sector even though we all know that some of the most egregious sources of discrimination against older people are in, for example, car and travel insurance. Barry Fitzpatrick and I wrote a report for the Equality Commission on older people’s access to financial services in 2008 and found many examples of direct and indirect age discrimination across the whole range of financial services.
There may also be pressure to exempt some aspects of health and social care – again, there is strong evidence of at least ageism and at worst unequal treatment for older people in these crucial services. In order to develop legislation in such a short time, it is essential that the policy starts at the position of no exceptions for health and social care as it did in Great Britain. We will have to be vigilant as the legislative proposals and drafts emerge, to make sure that they are based on a genuine search for equality and fairness. If we get this right, it will mean a healthier and more secure old age for citizens of Northern Ireland – a benefit to the whole of society, not just me and my peers.